Sunday, February 21, 2010


A reader from Utah remembers a column I wrote, awhile back, about whether it ever is appropriate for a parent to read a child's e-mail.

My take on that issue was that a child's safety always trumps his or her privacy, meaning that it is indeed permissible on some occasions for parents to check their children's e-mail. I added, however, that a parent wanting to maintain trust with his or her children should make it clear ahead of time that their e-mail might be checked now and then.

Granted, such a warning might inspire a child to come up with alternative e-mail accounts, deceptive threads and other tactics to throw off a parent. Once violated, however, a bond of trust with a child is difficult to restore, so I think that laying out the ground rules ahead of time - regardless of whether the child likes those rules - is a good way to go.

My reader wants to know if I feel the same way about a romantic relationship between adults. He is in his early 60s, his girlfriend in her early 50s. He has never been married before, she's been married twice. Last summer the two bought a house together, and they are "talking marriage."

His girlfriend believes that everything in their relationship should be transparent, he writes - "an open book." He believes that there should be limits.

"Does a spouse or a significant other have the right to pore over a partner's e-mail?" he asks. "Is there privacy within a relationship?"

The two cases are not comparable. Most obviously, the difference between the relationship between a parent and a child and the relationship between two adults is that the former relationship is fundamentally unequal and, at least on the part of the child, involuntary. Because virtually all the power rests on one side of the equation, it's important that the rights of the other individual - the child - be spelled out and respected by both parties and, of course, by the law.

In the case of adults in a mutual relationship, the relationship is between equals and is entirely voluntary, and only one fundamental right applies: Whatever limits exist in a relationship must be agreed to by both parties. Neither partner has a "right" to rummage through the other's e-mail, nor a "right" not to have his/her e-mail rummaged through. The rules of their particular relationship must be mutually determined by the two of them.

In the case of my reader, the issue is not really privacy but the fact that he is uncomfortable with his partner's expectations where privacy is concerned. She places their relationship above either partner's right to privacy, he doesn't.

In the immediate matter at hand, in short, my reader is right: As long as he has not agreed to make his life "an open book," his partner isn't entitled to expect it to be so.

Since he and his partner are "talking marriage," however, he should be prepared to be honest with his partner and explain why this issue is so important to him - which, of course, means that he has to figure this out for himself. Does he want to keep secrets from his partner? Is he uncomfortable with the degree of closeness that she expects in a relationship? Is his own commitment to the relationship fundamentally different from hers?

They have bigger issues to work out, in short, than whether or not she checks his e-mail. If they can sort through them, I'd bet that he'll end up being OK with her seeing his e-mail and she'll be OK with not seeing it.

c.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


Anonymous said...

Ah, the "open relationship"! The woman (although this could easily be the man), and they profess "intentions to marry" (Sure!!), a nice way to start a "committed" relationship, but she expects to rummage around in even something as personal as her "significant other's" private e-mails. What a delicious way to start a committed "live in" relationship! How long will this last? I give it 6 months, no matter how they decide on the e-mail question.

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC

Unknown said...

Try going to